Come Correct with Massive Firepower

Billy Bragg demands to know the Truth!Tell Us the Truth Tour featuring Billy Bragg, Steve Earle, et al.

November 11, 2003, Royal Oak, Michigan

Tuesday evening’s Tell Us the Truth Tour stop at the Royal Oak Theatre simmered steadily with grassroots enthusiasm, and occasionally exploded into full-on anger and activism. It featured a few inspired musical moments, and even encouraged a few grizzled hippie holdouts to dig the largely a capella flow of an underground and erudite California MC. But while its message was made even more resonant by Veteran’s Day and Michigan’s contentious relationship with its principal industry, the night’s rabble rousing was permeated by a sense of dreadful resignation. Had the bastards already won?

Supported by its musicians and a coalition of unions and activist groups – including the AFL-CIO, Future of Music Coalition,, and Common CauseTell Us the Truth aims to raise the public’s awareness of globalization, corporate consolidation, and the co-opting/kowtowing of media in the 21st century. Performers at the Michigan date included Lester Chambers (best known as a member of the Chambers Brothers, who penned the timeless 1968 hit “Time Has Come Today”), Mike Mills (who did nothing more than play a few notes on an electric piano), Tom Morello, Steve Earle, and Billy Bragg; Jill Sobule and Janeane Garofalo are slated to join Tell Us the Truth as it winds its way down the East Coast.

The show also features assorted consciousness-raising interspersed with the music. At Tuesday’s show, this spot was filled by a woman who held aloft the 9,000 page NAFTA agreement and a set of handcuffs. Despite Bragg’s flub of her name and affiliation, her diatribe against government plans to expand the landmark agreement into something called the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAAA) was passionate and enlightening. But it was also tinged with a “Can you believe this shit?” attitude that was more soapbox than astute political argument. Pointing to the millions of Mexican farmers forced off their land in NAFTA’s wake cleverly expanded the normally American-centric argument against job loss. But her description of the workers’ plight as “getting fucked” was lazy and shortsighted. (Not as shortsighted as the jamoke who screamed “start the rock!” throughout her stump, but still.) Taken with the clutch of rickety Rock the Vote card tables in the theatre’s lobby, Tell Us the Truth’s vaunted aims seemed undercut by a lack of follow through. Somewhere in America, Veterans Day was being remembered with $2,000 checks and the hand clasping of puffy pink hands. As conservative coffers spilled over onto the deep pile, a ragtag group of rockers, activists, and enthusiastic supporters cheered each other’s well-meaning, yet possibly meaningless soapbox heroism.

Morello’s machine-raging activism is documented. But his method Tuesday evening was much more subtle. Performing as the Nightwatchman, “an artist of the people,” he stalked darkly through a stark set of acoustic numbers written specially for the Truth tour. Singing in a scratchy, dour baritone, Morello revealed his Nightwatchman to be a cynical savior, prone to seeing justice through his enemy’s eyes. In “Branding Iron,” he speaks in the voice of an unknown, everyday killer. “Walk down the street / From the convenience store / I’ve been keeping a secret / In my top dresser drawer.” Elsewhere he channeled the spirit of Woody Guthrie, striking at his acoustic guitar with a force not unlike his seizure-worthy solos for Rage. It was an impressive set, even moreso because the famously mouthy Morello mostly let his imagery do the preaching. You could see “House Up in Flames” and “Maximum Firepower” for miles down the blacktop, coming at you with fury – they didn’t need any “Bush is Bad” sloganeering to hit home.

If the Nightwatchman’s work was powerful in its understatement, rapper Boots Riley of Oakland, California’s Coup spoke viscerally and intelligently to brain, heart, and dancing shoe receptors. Beginning his set with a mindblowing a capella reading of the true-life poverty tale “Underdogs” (from the Coup’s 1998 release Steal This Album), the MC made Midwest hearts and minds stop and feel with lines like “whole family sleepin’ on futons / While you clippin’ coupons / eatin’ salad tryin’ to get full off the croutons” and “you just don’t know where the years went / Although every long shift feel like a year spent.” Joined by an understated bass player and Chambers on tambourine and vocals, Riley endeared himself and his levelheaded, yet realistic politics to a crowd that seemed unsure of his afro when he first strode across the stage. “Piss on Your Grave” – a funny fantasy about George Washington, graves, and slaves, but not necessarily in that order – even got a few aging hippie ponytails flipping.

While the lack of a true backing band didn’t mar Morello and Riley’s work, a little electrification and crashing percussion would have been nice to help pace out the sets from Steve Earle and Bragg. As headliner, the latter played for much longer than his counterpart. But it was Earle who turned in the stronger performance, since he so effortlessly mixed personality with pragmatism. He railed against Manifest Destiny, Saturn’s Michigan-Tennessee job crunch, and 19th century juvenile delinquents, but it was done with casual genius, instead of Bragg’s righteous breast beating. Sure, Bragg’s Fender charged up the proceedings with some raggedy amplification. But he seemed to stumble over whole phrases in his zeal to dis Bush and policy. Like the simplistic “we’re fucked” phraseology of the earlier speech, Bragg reduced his platform to easily digestible rallying cries that shed little light on the issues other than recognizing them as being really bad for us. He deserves respect for his career-spanning commitment to clobbering the stuffed shirts. But Bragg’s role in Tell Us the Truth seemed relegated to melodic cheerleading. Earle, on the other hand, seemed resigned to our quickly advancing fate. His entire set was colored darkly, both by shit happens humor and prescient social observation. Like Boots Riley, who got people thinking (and dancing) even as he busted the vitriolic “Ride the Fence,” Earle let his acoustic strumming cut into the larger neoconservative horde’s self-satisfied scheming, and rallied the sizable working man crowd right in front of him with effecting, visionary songcraft (“The Mountain” was a standout of his set). The times are quickly a-changin’ for the worse, that’s for sure. But Earle chose powerful music over lambasting message as his weapon, and was more succesful for it.

Tell Us the Truth will certainly aid in the fight against scary stuff like the FATAA, media consolidation, and sneaky backdoor politics. Ultimately, any note of activism helps write the protest songs. But in its immediate form, the event was misguided, because it forgot to tie the bootlaces before stomping around and making noise. The result was like a fading echo off of the gabled ceiling of the Royal Oak Theatre. As the night’s performers joined together onstage for a rousing encore of Chambers’ “Time Has Come Today,” I chatted with two disheveled fellows who’d followed the Truth from its recent stop in Madison, Wisconsin. It’s possible the “grassroots organizers” were trying to gather signatures for a series of referendums, but the duo’s mission was clouded behind their coke bottle spectacles. Their despondency at a battle already lost made the well-thumbed pamphlets they clutched to their ski jackets useless. It was disheartening to discover that the left’s message wasn’t resonating, even with two guys who had sacrificed personal hygiene for it. “Time has come today!” the singers sang to the incessant beat of a cowbell. And somewhere shadowy evil continued to creep from the hearts of calm, wealthy, and highly organized men.

The truth? We’re fucked.


24 thoughts on “Come Correct with Massive Firepower”

  1. Nice article. I’ve been a big fan of Bragg since his beginnings 20 years ago when I was a kid. I remember meeting him in college. He has always been a signer-on to shows like this. It’s a bit odd that some English dude would be one to show up at AFL-CIO rallies, Democratic party primary parties and countless other political events over the past two decades. But, he has been. I think that he truely sees himself in the tradition of people like Pete Seager and even Phil Ochs.

    The weaknesses of the show, the thin or strained connection between the message and the music, is rampent in liberal circles. I can’t think of a single protest or event that I’ve been to where the message didn’t come across as simplistic and shrill. Contrast this with conservative christian concerts and some country music shows, where the ‘message’ is clear and clean and delivers from beginning to end. Those types of shows go on all over the US all the time and draw enormous crowds.

    The problem with the breakdown in the message is that there IS NO LEFT in the USA. There are simply scatered liberals. But there is no Left. There is no counter to conservatives, religious extremists and multinational corporations, not in a national dialogue, not in our political institutions and not in our cultural institutions either.

    In the USA we have an ever declining number of screaming lefty types who never get together for anything more than opposing ‘the man’. Because there is no Left, you can’t have a concert or artistic based event of any real scale that offers up a strong, consistant and believable alternative to what is pushed by the prevailing polical and cultural elites.

    I have found that the most successful of entertainment events that also deliver a liberal message, usually are the ones that don’t smash you over the head with it. Like the Ska Against Racism Tour of a few years ago, The first two years of Lalapalooza or the last U2 tour.

    My suggestion is to put the performers on stage to rock the crowd and let the music and the vibe do the talking. Especially when everyone there already agrees with each other.

  2. “Tell Us the Truth will certainly aid in the fight against scary stuff”, huh?

    Respectfully Disagree. I reckon I’m scared by different stuff than youse, but whatever it is you find scary the thing that’s certain is it won’t be effected by this fun rock show, the only point of which is to all get together to feel superior for being so moral, enlightened and cool.

    By the way, that Fender with which Bragg charged up the proceedings was likely made with Mexican labor (even if its a real vintage one- which man of the downtrodden Bragg can certainly afford- the workers at the Fender factory in those days were mostly Mexican immigrants who weren’t paid all that well). Then of course we got the clothes everyone was wearing, the beer they were drinking, the cigs they were smoking, all brought to you by those calm wealthy guys everyone there patronizes and those fucked workers we all depend on the make the stuff.

    Better not to dwell on that and spoil the party, though. Much more fun to thouroughly enjoy a privileged decadent consumerist lifestyle whilst loudly & proudly having the correct opinions against it so you don’t feel guilty.

  3. So what’s the solution, Wik? How should one properly protest the FATAA, media consolidation, sneaky backdoor politics, and other things that are wrong wrong wrong?

    And by the way, wasn’t Johnny’s whole point basically agreeing with you anyway? He came right out and said that if this ragtag bunch of hippies is all we’ve got, we’re fucked.

  4. The solution is to vote. Plain and simple. Go to the polls and push that chad real hard. Make sure it doesn’t hang there like feet on the fence. You can argue that it won’t matter, the people running are crooks, but you have to register and you have to vote.

  5. “The solution is to vote. Plain and simple. ”

    Amen, Anon. And also, we should all get off our asses and volunteer. Help get the vote out, help campaign for the candidates of your choice. If you disagree with the current administration’s policies, do something about it. Otherwise it’ll just be more of the same.

    And if you don’t think your vote counts, just remember the last presidential election.

    BTW, I was watching a fundraiser a few months ago featuring Bill Clinton, and he made a good point. He said that if most people really knew what Bush and company were up to, they’d be pissed. He also mentioned the use of humor and avoiding negativity in talking to people about the issues. Made a lot of sense. Who wants to listen to a bunch of negative, pessimistic knee-jerks?

    Anyway, my belabored point is we really can make a difference. But doing things the old way, i.e. ‘Tell Us the Truth Tour’, won’t cut it. Democracy takes a lot of work.

  6. Well, I am pessimistic as well, but at least they are trying. People need to be educated, and although many who would attend this probaly already have educated themselves, the more talk- the better the education. For example, I am glad that Glorious Noise linked those sites.. Get the word out, and yes definatley vote!!!

  7. Oh Jake, guys, we’re not fucked. We’re doing just fine. A good time was had by all. We can pretty much get whatever we want and do whatever we want. We enjoy more freedom than anyone ever has, anywhere.

    If you want to get excited about some mythical x-files cigarette smoking guy type conspiricies to keep the noble proletariat down and crush dissent, go ahead. Whatever floats yer boat. Meanwhile, dissent is alive and healthy. It’ll win you more acadamy awards than non-dissent, that’s for sure. And even in a “bad” economy, we’re all doing much much better than any society ever has. Even our poorest have things my grandparents couldn’t have dreamed of, and my grandparents weren’t the poorest.

    But whatever, have fun. Just let’s don’t pretend these preachy be-ins make a difference to anyone or anything and let’s do acknowledge the incogruity of the earnest opinions expressed at these shindigs and the lifestyle of those doing the earnest expressing.

    Its protest as leisure activity. Young people have had loads of fun doing this stuff for decades. Nothing wrong with that, but that’s all it is. Down with the system, power to the people, and now lets put on our Levis and drive our oil burners to go get some new CDs and Budweiser. Its all good.

  8. Why is it musicians think its their responsibility to tell us what to think?? Stick to rocking and stop the thinking!!! And if they do have a political agenda do it at least while thrashing some chords. peace.

  9. zackpe, I don’t have a problem with musicians voicing their political opinions. What, are they not allowed to? Besides, a lot of artists are who they are because of their political bent. What about Rage Against The Machine? If they weren’t political they wouldn’t have any songs!

  10. Zackpe, you have lost sight of what makes America slightly better than, say, a country in South America where you’re summarily executed if you voice your opinion. You say, “Why is it musicians think its their responsibility to tell us what to think??” YOU”RE MISSING THE POINT, Z-pe!! Last I checked, they weren’t telling us what to think, they were telling us what *they* think!! Bear with me; I know it’s a subtle difference here, and one that most conservatives are probably oblivious to. But think about it; they’ve worked hard to get the fame that they have earned. They now have a platform from which to speak. These artists think that there’s something wrong with the uber-rich influencing the system to keep themselves rich and keep the rest of us in the poorhouse, buggered and content, asking for another ass-reaming with a smile. Someone like Tom Morello realizes that if you want peace you have to work for justice, so he’s doing something a lot of us aren’t doing; he’s actually trying to raise awareness!!!!! He’s actually putting his money where his mouth is!!! What’s wrong with that?? No one can tell you what to think, not even Tom Morello, Sting, or, *gasp*, TOBY KEITH!!!

    Which brings me to another point; why is it that when dipshits like Toby Keith speak their mind and try to “tell us what to think” all your Rush Limbaugh’s of the world say nice things about what a wonderful American he is, while Tom Morello, Billy Bragg, Natalie Maines and the like are excoriated as “trying to tell us what to think”. Does anyone else smell the HYPOCRISY????!?!?!? Last I checked, Zackpe, it is still our right to complain about the president and conditions in the world. They did it in 1776, and maybe it’s time more artists “tell us what to think”. Sure beats the fuck out of sitting on our candy-asses at home, playing our Xboxes, and hoping that the world works itself out without our doing anything or speaking up for ourselves. “Our government must know what they’re doing, otherwise, we wouldn’t have elected them into office. Let’s let them do their thing without criticism or accountability, otherwise we’ll be called un-patriotic or be accused of telling people what to think.” Fucking hypocrites…

  11. And don’t misunderstand me, Zack… Toby’s got just as much right as Tom Morello, just as Tom’s got just as much right as Toby. Tom just happens to have better sense than to title his albums with winners like “Shock’n Y’all”.

  12. Wik,

    The fact that we have such luxury, combined with people who think that this makes the world safe and sound, informs me that we actually are fucked. America’s deification of luxury is precisely why we’re fucked.

    Do you think that just because you are content with your life that logic renders everyone else okay, too? Does great freedom override those with less?

    I’d never sacrifice a bit of freedom or luxury as a gift to someone else…

  13. Maybe I’m not expressing myself too gooder. My point, kind of, well one of them, was that them people at that there truth symposium are merely wearing their supposed beliefs on their sleeves as a kind of a fashion statement. You got your cool t-shirt, you got the right things in the record collection, the hair’s mussed just so and, likewise, you got the correct opinions to go with. Its a signifier, if you will. Look at how moral I am, everybody. That kind of thing.

    Meanwhile, they all go about their business and don’t worry about whether their actions are consistent with those supposed opinions. There’s lots of ways to help poor Mexicans but going to a rock show and loudly agreeing with your friends over beers aren’t two of them.

  14. Wik, I agree with you in many ways, and some musicians surely make their politics known solely for attention. But some don’t do it just for publicity, (not trying to say anything about anyone in particular) and some make a difference. That’s an important thing to remember.

    Unfortunately it’s trendy for rock musicians (“artists??”) to do that, and in many ways, it’s a great corruption of an honorable charity.

    But, I think, in some cases, events like “Tell the Truth” can be beneficial, especially if it’s nonprofit, a fundraiser, or new members are introduced to a charitable cause. I don’t know. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s worthless, but I think *when* it works, the good points far outweigh the worthless.


  15. Which is exactly what Johnny says in the article. He expresses frustration at the futility of this crowd of left-sympathizers/activists, sharing sentiments without a clear sense of how to begin to make them into realities. The article is about how sad it is that this vagueness is what the left tries to rally around.

    And also, Wik, it kind of rankles with me that you assume the people involved in this tour and the people at the shows have skin-deep politics. Of course, a lot of people are at any concert to drink beer and have a good time, but at the same time, a lot of people, and probably a good number who were at this show, are working against the dismal direction the country’s going in, whether or not they’re not registering on the radar. Why do you call their beliefs “their supposed beliefs”? Like, aren’t you making a huge assumption there?

  16. Listeners with a sense of history know that Billy Bragg, Steve Earle, and Tom Morello have consistently spoken their minds about their politics throughout their career. In fact, I’d be willing to wager that since the easier road is to be non-political yet these men still decide to speak up on a regular basis, this might not be simply a passing fancy with them. Call me crazy; I calls ’em like I sees ’em.

  17. But does “speaking your mind” do any good? What does it accomplish? We’ve got an administration in this country that’s trouncing our civil rights, destroying our environment, shifting the entire tax burden to the middle class, repeatedly lying to the public, and generally just being evil. How is speaking your mind going to change ANY of this?

  18. Best to let this whole thing rest, I guess. But one last thing- cause you can make a difference by speaking out- you can pursuade those who disagree with you, bring to light things that are unnoticed or ignored, whatever.

    The show over there was not for the purpose of making a difference, though. It was a party to make everyone involved feel superior for having the correct politics. You can’t convince me otherwise.

  19. Wik, man. You gotta chill out.

    I get the impression that it was probably a party for like minded people who shared some common beliefs. Not for the purpose of feeling superior, but for the purpose of feeling a little solidarity during difficult times.

    For christ sakes, who would go to this show not expecting that? On the other hand, being a liberal who doesn’t suffer from liberal guilt, I can see how someone would have liked to rock-out a little more.

    If you spend any time listening to Bragg, you’ll find that he believes that you have to take sides. Being ‘independent’ is akin to forfeiting your opinions and beliefs. I’d say, Wik, if you dont’ like it, hump your arse over to a Promise Keepers rally and get yerself all lathered up. Lord knows they don’t feel superior to other people.

    Peace Out

  20. See what I get for having an opinion? Come witness the crushing of dissent at GloNo. Help help I’m being opressed.

    Just joking. Actually, I don’t care about any of this nearly as much as my posts indicate. Can’t figure out how I got all caught up in this. So I’ll be done with this debate to nowhere. Lover not a fighter. Friends? gimme a kiss

  21. “I get the impression that it was probably a party for like minded people who shared some common beliefs.”

    And tehre ain’t nothing wrong with that. Maybe it was a pep rally. There needs to be some rallying to get anything done. And this event got some press (yes, even mainstream press) and that by default got the issues a bit of press. It’s like when John and Yoko did their bed-ins. It was silly. It was dopey. And they knew it. John said he would gladly be a clown if it brought attention to the cause.

    Events like this are ONE way to bring awareness, they’re not supposed to be the answer.

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